This is a tribute to my grandfather, just one of many servicemen, who put his life on the line for all of us.
Feb. 21, 1919 – Jan. 9, 2007
“When I lived in Mississippi, we drank water from the garden hose and not from a bottle,” my grandma Weenie said, “and we would leave home in the morning and play all day outside.”
Life in rural Mississippi in the early Twentieth Century had virtually no paved roads, no plumbing, and little electricity. Throughout the United States, many changes during this time were beginning to occur through advances in technology. The turn of the century was one of transition and progress and is considered the first decade of materialism and consumerism. Advances in all these areas remained comparatively slow throughout the early decades, well into the 1930's when the Great Depression stagnated lifestyles. However, the people of Mississippi kept a positive attitude. During this time, my grandma Weenie saw the small town of Durant, Mississippi come together and learn the meaning of sharing. But to others throughout the nation, the American dream had become a nightmare. What was once the land of opportunity was now the land of desperation. What was once the land of hope and optimism had become the land of despair. The American people were questioning all the maxims on which they had based their lives – democracy, capitalism, and individualism. My family, especially my grandparents, have experienced many historical events first hand – the Stock Market Crash, Pearl Harbor, WWII – and saw how their surrounding environments changed because of these events, for better or worse.
When President Roosevelt took office in 1933, he feverishly created program after program to give relief, create jobs, and stimulate economic recovery for the U.S. “When he first took office, my father didn’t like him,” explained my grandfather. “We all thought he was too radical trying to implement all these new projects. But as time went by, we realized that these programs were necessary to improve the economy.” The Works Progress Administration (WPA), an ambitious New Deal program, put 8,500,000 jobless to work. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was another work relief program for young men established in March 1933. This program was one of the most successful of the New Deal programs. The New Deal brought jobs and relief to millions of Americans; however, it did not end the depression. The depression ended because of World War II – a war that my grandfather thought he would never have to fight.
During the 1930s, my grandparents attended college together at Delta State. Once my grandfather completed his music degree, he went back to school to enroll in pre-med. courses. Weenie had then graduated and was teaching in Drew. My grandfather said, “I had not been in school a month when I got a letter from ‘Uncle Sam’ telling me to report to Camp Shelby, Mississippi.”
When grandfather got to Camp Shelby, he was inducted into the army and sent to Camp Croft, S.C. to start basic training. Weenie wrote at once that she would come to S.C. to be married to James. My grandfather wrote Weenie telling her that Christmas was only a few weeks away, and he would be getting a leave. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the American naval base in Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, all leaves were canceled. The attacks crippled American fleet in the Pacific and caused entry of the U.S. into World War II.
My grandfather was assigned to an infantry regiment and sent to New York to board troop ships for overseas. He left the Port of Embarkation, New York in January 1942, the first convoy to leave the states after war was declared. During that time, my grandfather was on New Caledonia, a small French Island near Australia. From there, he was in the Guadalcanal and Bougainville, Solomon Islands Campaigns. Grandfather being in and out of tent hospitals with malaria on the Fiji Islands separated these two campaigns. “We had to fight two enemies,” explained grandfather, “one being the tropical diseases and the other being the enemy.”
Two years had gone by, and then my grandfather had to return to Guadalcanal – the same mosquito infested location in which he had contracted malaria. However, this time Guadalcanal had been sprayed with DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). Grandfather was able to stay without any worries of developing the disease again. DDT first tested in the United States in 1942. It saved the lives of countless U.S. soldiers and millions of others across the globe at risk of malaria. In light of its success abroad, when the war ended, DDT was soon widely deployed by public health officials, who banished malaria from the southern United States with its help. “DDT was used everywhere – in the Mississippi Delta, in Water Valley,” my grandfather said. “But I think it was a good thing that the pesticide was banned once we discovered that it was harming the animals.”
As WWII continued, it began to take a toll on the British. One of my grandma’s friends, Evelyn Bohnen, lived in Southampton, England where she was born and raised. “Southampton was very lovely,” explained Mrs. Bohnen, “never as hot as it is in the U.S.” However, Mrs. Bohnen didn’t meet my grandma until she moved to the United States after the war, for she fell in love with an American.
“During WWII, everyone had to work in the armed forces or the factories,” said Mrs. Bohnen. “I started working with ‘Airaid Precautions.’ I went to college for aeronautical engineering for 18 months and took a crash course. Afterward, I was employed as the inspector for the government.” In 1940, Mrs. Bohnen became an inspector for the factories. Women worked in all areas of production ranging from making ammunition to uniforms to airplanes. The hours they worked were long, and some women had to relocate to factory locations.
Dr. Moen Hughes, a Cambridge professor, asked Mrs. Bohnen to become his personal assistant. He was connected with the growth of proctile development and worked for the ministry of supply and development research. “He was almost completely deaf,” explains Mrs. Bohnen. “I guess you could just call me his ‘Girl Friday.’ I took notes for him and listened to his phone calls.”
On August 14, 1940, the Germans attacked Southampton, England. Fortunately, Mrs. Bohnen’s father had taken an area of their home and made an airade shelter with 12-inch thick walls. “I can’t believe my family survived! My church was completely destroyed, and my father’s office was gone,” Mrs. Bohnen said. “We were just lucky to have each other.” Southampton suffered terribly from large-scale air raids during WWII. As a large port city on the south coast, it was an important strategic target for the German air force, Luftwaffe. There were 57 attacks in all, but nerves were frayed by over 1,500 alarms. According to A.R.P. (Air Raid Precaution Department) reports over 2,300 bombs were dropped amounting to over 470 tons of high explosives. Over 30,000 incendiary devices were dropped on the city. Nearly 45,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed, with most of the city's High Street being hit. There were reports that the glow of Southampton burning could be seen from as far away as Cherbourg on the North coast of France. Nazi publicity declared in propaganda that the city had been left a smoking ruin. “My father was devastated because he lost his only son. My brother was an officer with the Royal Signal Corps, a branch of the British army. He died on August 11, 1942 when a mine was bombed,” explained Mrs. Bohnen. “I will never forget that day.”
During WWII, my grandma Weenie stayed in Drew, Mississippi, and taught second grade. “I could only teach second grade because I couldn’t do third grade arithmetic,” said Weenie, laughing. Sue Whirly, Weenie’s cousin, was a math major and applied for Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation in New York during WWII. “Sue was accepted, and she was ecstatic to help build the airplanes during the war,” Weenie said. “But Sue was even more excited about livin’ up in New York City. I think that’s the main reason she applied to Grumman, so she could live in the big apple.”
Back in the United States, when World War II had finally ended in 1945, my grandfather was able to come home. Camp Shelby was where it all started almost four years before. “I was home,” my grandfather said, “and I had long wondered if that day would ever come.” The next day, June 15, 1945, in a little Army chapel in New Orleans, Weenie and James were married.
My uncle, Ed French, has written a book, Crossing the Old Man. It’s a story of appreciation and affirmation of the generation of Americans who grew up during The Great Depression, experienced World War II, and built families and careers afterwards. It is a story told through the eyes and from the memories of a Baby Boomer whose fond reflections of visiting his family in Mississippi are always first met by crossing an old river. It is a story that challenges the reader to look inside himself by looking at the lives of others. It is a story that touches anywhere in the country, but is set in the Deep South. It is a journey met with humor, sorrow and acknowledgment, by crossing an old river – the Old Man. Click here to order Crossing the Old Man.